“Saugus, 2019, acrylic on camouflage fabric, 34 x 26 inches”
by Richard Moninski
2022 Thomas Hickey Creative Writing Contest Winner in Fiction
I scrubbed the week-old pasta from the Tupperware my little brother had left in the fridge. My throat contracted as I fought back a gag. Stale noodles and sauce made my stomach tighten. The slime gathered under my fingernails. Once clean, I tossed the container into one of the cabinets and looked at the other dishes still on the counter. This was going to take hours.
My eyes caught the time on the clock. It was five in the afternoon already. I felt nerves cutting through me like sharp wire. My siblings would be home soon from their afterschool activities. Quickly, I washed my hands. I pulled open the fridge. I had to go grocery shopping, if I could find the money. There was nothing more in there than a half-gallon of soured milk, a block of cheese, and a wilted head of lettuce. In hopes of finding something better, I pulled open the freezer and immediately frowned. There was a freezer-burnt pizza and a bag of pizza rolls that had fused itself to the crystalized sides of the freezer.
I huffed in frustration and opened a cabinet. I took from it the container that once held butter. The old Country Crock logo had begun to fade. The scene with the barn, field and sky had dissipated and was now just the tan of the tub. This was the receptacle for any bits of money that came into our hands. My little sister would pick up coins she would find when she walked home from school. Chris would tutor other kids in math and charge as much as he thought he could get away with. My two jobs, one early morning waitressing at a little diner and the other at night as a stocker at a grocery, covered the rest of the bills that bore my mother’s name. I couldn’t get them in my own name, even if I had wanted to. I was only seventeen.
Hesitant, I opened the old butter tub. I stared down at only half of what our rent would be when it came due in two weeks. I put the top back on the old flimsy plastic and put it back on the highest shelf. I would have to make whatever I could find in the house stretch.
I checked the other cabinet above the sink. On the lowest shelf were boxes of mac and cheese, rice, and pasta, the things my little sister could make for herself. The next shelf up: Spaghetti-Os, Chef Boyardee, ramen. I took out a box of rice, a can of corn, one of cream of chicken soup, and two cans of tuna. It wouldn’t taste like much I knew, but I had two kids, and myself, to feed.
“Emily,” my brother’s voice called. I heard the door open.
I moved quickly to greet them. My hands dragged along the halls, out of habit. The space was tight. The hall finally spat me out into the living room, to the yellow couch with red flowers, the throw pillows worn, with an ugly checkered pattern. In the corner, a blue pleated armchair with a mysterious brown stain that had been on it when we pulled it off the side of the road and hauled it into our home. That was after Mom had left.
I stepped to the door and held it open for my younger brother and sister. Both Anne and Chris’ hair looked like amber stone due in the waning sunlight creeping through the windows. Their eyes were blue and green respectfully, but both held flakes of yellow bursting from around the pupil. They contrasted with my own dark eyes. Their eyes were wide, full of alarm. They had always been unaware of the troubles that plagued our family and, like me, had trouble letting their worries go even for a minute.
I took the half gallon of milk I’d asked Chris to pick up from the store on his way home. The two of them almost simultaneously shucked their backpacks off their shoulders. Anne’s was a Hannah Montana one, Chris’ camo. Attached to Anne’s shirt was a gold star from her teacher. Anne had always been a star student. I motioned for the two of them to follow me to the kitchen. They did, but with the tired hesitancy of children twice their ages.
“How was school today?” I asked as I put the fresh milk in the fridge.
“My straight A’s haven’t budged since you asked yesterday,” Chris smirked. He was a full-on teen now and acted like it.
Anne nodded but didn’t say anything.
“How are your clubs then?” I asked instead.
“Art club has a meeting tomorrow,” Anne said.
“I have to do paperwork with the recruiter tomorrow,” Chris offered.
“Wow, look at my little artist and marine,” I teased. I shocked myself sometimes by how much I sounded like I was their actual mother instead of a teen, so desperate and terrified inside. I put a hand on each of their heads and fluffed their hair a little. She was only 10 and he 15, but they were already doing more than I had in school. I hadn’t graduated from high school. I didn’t even have a GED.
“I have homework to do, so can you make dinner again tonight?” Chris said, preemptively avoiding a chore, as a boy might do. It was both annoying to me and reassuring: I liked to see him acting his age. Perhaps he was having a real childhood, a normal one, after all.
I rolled my eyes but nodded in agreement. Schoolwork was far more important. I didn’t let on that I’d predicted this move on his part and had already gotten dinner started.
“By the way,” Chris said, “Your stupid flowers look like they’re dying.” He disappeared down the dark hallway to retrieve his trigonometry binder from his backpack. He and Anne shared a room. He would do his homework there.
My marigolds, I thought. I’d forgotten about them. I made my own way back down our tight hallway to check on the marigolds I’d planted out front some eight weeks earlier. They had finally bloomed, but they were indeed drooping. The color of the petals reminded me of the kids’ hair in the sun: a darkened orange, the tips the color of honey. I went out, turned on the hose, filled the old watering can I kept beside it, carefully watered the marigolds, down at the soil, close to their roots so as not to knock their blooms off.
I went back in the house to finish making dinner. Back down that narrow hallway I went. To get to any part of living in our small home one had to travel that dark, oppressively narrow hallway. Back into the kitchen I took down one of the few clean pots from the kitchen cabinets. I filled the rusty pot with water. I felt the handles buckle against the weight of the water. One day, I thought, they’ll fall off.
I set the pot on the stove and listened to the stovetop itself groan from the weight. I turned the greasy knob. It clicked as the stove tried to light. Grumbling, I turned it off and tried again. The smell of gas filled my nostrils. Still, it didn’t light. Finally I got a lighter out, sparked the flame and held it under the pot for a second. The flame flared dramatically around the bottom of the pot and then settled down to a medium heat.
The doorbell rang. We weren’t expecting anyone. I picked up the old, grease-covered timer and set the dial at seven minutes. Once again I maneuvered down that awful hallway, across that dingy living room, and to the front door. I pulled it open, but as soon as I had I wished I hadn’t.
There stood my mother. Our mother. The mother we didn’t have. There was dried vomit in her long hair. It was dark, like mine, and crusted together in places. Her tan sweatshirt was dirty and torn, and she wore stained, loose pants. She was emaciated, and her face was an almost surreal shade of brilliant red. I knew immediately she was drunk.
“I came to say I’m sorry,” she stammered. Her voice felt like poison to me.
“I need you to leave,” I said and started to shut the door, but before I’d had a chance, she shot one of her worn sneakers through the door. The bare tip of her big toe protruded from a hole in the shoe. It bulged out like a malignant growth. She took hold of the doorframe to steady herself. She kept her foot lodged right inside the door to prevent me from shutting it. Anger surged in my chest, in my stomach, everywhere, riding up through my esophagus like an actual fist of fire.
“I should have never left you with the kids alone,” she said. She’d been gone for weeks, for months, and then she’d come back, and then she’d left, and then come back again, only to leave for another several months. I’d lived this exact same experience more times than I could count. “Let me make it right,” she said, as she always did. “I’m your mother.”
“No,” I laughed. “You don’t get to choose when you start being a mother, and when you stop, and when you start again, and on and on and on.”
“Let me in,” she screamed. She’d tried apology, emotional appeals. Now she was moving on to anger.
I smelled her breath. It was so familiar, like a mixture of gasoline and acetone. The exhaustingly sickening smell of tequila. Her pupils, I saw, were dilated. I could hardly tell if her eyes were still blue. Was that, I asked myself, the residue of white powder under her nose? I almost didn’t care. I’d had to give up caring long ago, just to survive.
“No.” I shook my head. I’d never felt more sure of anything in my life.
Finally, I did what I had to do: I kicked her foot out of the doorway and gave her thin frame a slight push. It didn’t take much. She stumbled backwards and grabbed the railing. I was about to shut the door when – oh damn the heart, damn love and all its complications – I didn’t. I couldn’t. I watched her turn and grope her way along the railing toward the front steps. I watched her stop and lean over as though surveying the progress of my marigolds. And I watched her throw up into them. I almost cared.
She wiped her mouth with her torn sleeve and looked back at me, embarrassed almost it seemed. My body felt hot all over. I looked down at the chunks of bile on my marigolds.
My mother had regained herself, her anger, her delusion. “You’re an ungrateful little bitch, Emily,” she said.
I shut the door. I locked it. I was, I realized, crying. Or, rather, I was sobbing. The timer in the kitchen rang, its high pitched channeled through the hallway as though down a chute. I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my sweatshirt and headed back to the kitchen.
And then things were back to this: I stirred rice into boiling water. I set the timer again. When it went off, I turned off the heat. I called the kids to help finish making dinner. I wanted to teach them to take care of themselves. They came into the kitchen. Anne fluffed the rice with a fork, and then Chris used the hand can opener to open the cream of chicken and the tuna. He added them to the rice, and Anne stirred carefully. I watched them, these children of mine who were not my children. I wanted to make things work for them, and for myself. I would never stop trying. Tomorrow, I thought to myself, we’ll have Spaghetti-Os.
Dez Logan is a secondary English Education major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, with a minor in creative writing. Originally, Dez is from Sallisaw, OK, but moved to Kimberly, WI in 2016.
Trained as a painter, Richard Moninski makes work that explores the systematization of nature, the decorative impulse, the choices between representation and abstraction, and the history and culture of specific places. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited nationally. He resides in Mineral Point, WI.